Machias Seal Island

A Puffin in the hands of a researcher on Machias Seal Island

Machias Seal Island

Machias SeaL Island, a remote, rocky island in the Bay of Fundy remains the only piece of land still in dispute between Canada and the United States, neither of which are willing to relinquish their claim.

Long before European settlers arrived, the island was a summer hunting site for the Peskotomuhkati people, who called it Mesancook, meaning “bare place.”

The island is small and nearly desolate, but its significance today lies in the valuable fishing rights that come with ownership.

The island is often shrouded in thick fogs that can last for days, and its exposure to the elements, as implied by its name, is why the Peskotomuhkati never settled there.

When Europeans began arriving in North America, they too paid little attention to the isolated island. Even during the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the island was ignored, despite its strategic location. The island was so completely overlooked during both wars that it wasn’t mentioned in the peace treaties that ended them.

However, shortly after the War of 1812 ended, New Brunswick began showing interest in the island.

At that time, Canada did not yet exist, and the independent colony of New Brunswick was occasionally willing to risk border disputes with the United States.

Only five months after the war ended, a detailed survey map of Machias Seal Island, complete with a marked location for a lighthouse, had been presented to the province’s Executive Council. 

The lighthouses of Machias Seal Island, which remains today the only disputed land between Canada and the United States. The tower on the left was built in 1869 and the other in 1877. Both wooden lighthouses were torn down in 1914 and replaced with concrete structures. Provincial Archives of New Brunswick P8-713w
The lighthouses of Machias Seal Island, which remains today the only disputed land between Canada and the United States. The tower on the left was built in 1869 and the other in 1877. Both wooden lighthouses were torn down in 1914 and replaced with concrete structures. Provincial Archives of New Brunswick P8-713w

In response to persistent requests from the Chamber of Commerce of Saint Andrews, the government of New Brunswick allocated 750 pounds in 1831 to build a lighthouse on Machias Seal Island, provided it could be distinguished from other nearby lights. Earlier lighthouses had been constructed at Head Harbour on Campobello Island in 1829 and on Gannet Rock in 1831.

In 1832, two octagonal wooden towers and a keeper’s dwelling were built on the island, with John Pendlebury being paid an annual salary of 130 pounds as the first keeper. The two lights, each consisting of eight lamps set in 23-inch reflectors, prevented confusion with the revolving light at Gannet Rock and the fixed light at Head Harbour. In 1857, the lights were fueled by 700 gallons of seal oil and 207 gallons of porpoise oil, the latter being more expensive but necessary in cold weather. In 1840, it was noted that Keeper John Conley was an excellent pilot and had a cow, garden, and “every comfort” on the island. Conley frequently piloted vessels to Saint Andrews, leaving his wife to manage the lights, leading to a recommendation that he hire an assistant.

Machias Seal Island, located in a central shipping channel and often shrouded in summer fog, was equipped with a four-pound signal gun and a supply of powder in 1841 to serve as a fog signal, though a large alarm bell was recommended. A pattern of firing the gun every two hours during low visibility was later established. In 1843, a supply of provisions was stored on the island and an 800-gallon tank was erected to store rainwater for the use of “shipwrecked seamen and emigrants.”

Major work was carried out at the station in 1856-1857, including repairs to the towers’ stone foundation walls, lanterns, and decks, new shingling for the towers, and repairs to the dwelling and barn. A six-pounder signal gun with a house and platform was also installed during this period, along with a new flagpole. By 1869, one of the two towers was worn out, and Messrs. Clarke and Stackhouse were contracted to construct a new tower at a cost of $2,450. The light from a powerful third-order Fresnel lens was first exhibited from the new lighthouse on November 6, 1869. While the brighter light was appreciated, it also created a problem: mariners often saw only the brighter of Machias Seal’s two lights or mistook the dimmer light for that of the keeper’s dwelling, leading them to believe they were off West Quoddy, where a single third-order light was displayed.

In 1873, Machias Seal Island saw the establishment of the most powerful steam fog-whistle on the Bay of Fundy, with James Ackroyd serving as its engineer. The following year marked the end of John Conley’s thirty-plus years of service on the island, as well as the brief tenures of James Ackroyd and his successor J.H. Crosby, who resigned after just six months due to his family’s unwillingness to live on the island. Wright Edmonston then took charge of both the fog signal and the lights but left after a year when the Marine Department refused his request for a substantial salary increase. 

To improve logistics, a railway track was installed on the island, connecting the coal shed near the fog alarm building to the landing area. A one-inch rope, powered by machinery in the engine house, operated the railway car, which could carry two to three tons of coal per trip. The Marine Agent noted that the time saved in one offloading justified the cost of establishing the railway. However, heavy storms sometimes washed over the island, causing damage to the railway as large driftwood became caught under the rails. The tramway required repairs every couple of years, even after the original wooden one was replaced with a 210-foot-long iron tramway in 1896.

Eight years after the new tower began operation, a contract was awarded to George Armstrong in 1877 to construct a new companion tower. Unfortunately, the Chance Brothers Fresnel lens intended for the new lighthouse was destroyed in a great fire at the department’s warehouse in Saint John on June 20, 1877. A new lens was ordered from the same establishment, and the new lighthouse, an octagonal tower located sixty-four yards southeast of the west tower and standing fifty-three feet from base to vane, commenced operation on November 1, 1878. The total cost of the lighthouse, including the tower, lens, and lantern, was $6,807.40. Mariners were informed that the new towers, when aligned, marked a point 4 ¾ miles south of the Murr Ledges, whereas the former lights aligned with the ledges.

The American military effectively occupied Machias Seal Island in 1918. Throughout the First World War, German U-Boats regularly prowled the Bay of Fundy, hunting Canadian ships. However, after the Americans joined the war, those German submarines launched a brazen attack on U.S. soil, shelling Cape Cod.

In response, U.S. Marines occupied Machias Seal Island. They did so to protect its lighthouse and use the island as a base to defend the wider region from German submarine attacks.

The comparatively minor issue of the island’s unresolved sovereignty was set aside in the face of the U-Boat menace. The Americans sought and received the blessing of the Canadian government before they set foot on the island. After the war ended, the Marines departed from Machias Seal Island, marking the last American military presence on the island. 

Canadian Coast Guard Chopper lands on Machias Seal Island
Canadian Coast Guard Chopper lands on Machias Seal Island

Today, the Canadian Coast Guard flies in two guards by helicopter for rotating four-week-long shifts to ensure the island is constantly manned by Canadian officials, asserting sovereignty over the island. Every other lighthouse remaining on the East Coast is automated—except for Machias Seal Island. 

Machias Seal Lighthouse at night
Machias Seal Lighthouse at night. Photo by Ken Ingersoll.

The desolate little rock is significant to both countries because the nation that owns it controls the lucrative fishing rights around it.

Unfortunately, since both countries claim the island and neither recognizes the other’s claim, both nations continue to allow their respective fishing fleets to operate around it. As a result, it’s become an ecological nightmare, with fish stocks becoming depleted due to overfishing.

During the summer, the island transforms into a seabird sanctuary for Atlantic puffins, common murres, Arctic terns, and razorbill auks. These birds help deter gulls that prey on young chicks and fend off one of nature’s biggest homewreckers: humans. 

In 1944, the Canadian government declared Machias Seal Island and the surrounding waters a bird sanctuary. The island is home to the largest nesting colony of Puffins on the Atlantic Coast south of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

As one of the largest and most diverse seabird colonies on the East Coast, the island is protected by the Canadian Wildlife Service, which limits the number of tourists allowed at any given time. Only two tour boats, one from Maine and one from New Brunswick, can land each day on the island’s dock. With just 15 passengers per trip, spots fill up fast. Those fortunate enough to secure a spot must travel to either Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick or Cutler, Maine, where the boats are docked.

Machias Seal Island walkway
Machias Seal Island walkway. Photo by Ken Ingersoll.

Landing on the narrow and rocky shores of Machias can be tricky, and bad weather can easily cancel a long-awaited trip. However, if the seas are calm, adventure-seekers might spot a pack of seals sunning on a rock during the boat ride (which takes two hours from Maine and 1.5 hours from Grand Manan) or even see a whale.

Once on the island, tourists are restricted to boardwalks to avoid stepping on puffin burrows. The skittish birds prefer to avoid human interlopers, so people gather in wooden sheds called blinds, where they can observe the pigeon-sized, tuxedo-wearing birds undetected. 

A Puffin in the hands of a researcher on Machias Seal Island
A Puffin in the hands of a researcher on Machias Seal Island. Photo by Ken Ingersoll.

In May, thousands of puffins flock to the island to dig their burrows and lay their eggs. Once the eggs hatch, both parent puffins take turns guarding the chicks and venturing out to sea to bring back food. This process, lasting until about August, attracts birdwatchers, scientists, and wildlife photographers from around the world.

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